Saturday, October 23, 2010
12:13 AM James Manuel 1 comment
Governments and private benefactors are now working together with the United Nations in an unprecedented campaign against disease. One concerted effort focuses on the immunization of children in developing countries. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, if countries achieve their goals, “by 2015, more than 70 million children who live in the world’s poorest countries will receive each year life-saving vaccines against the following diseases: tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, rubella, yellow fever, haemophilus influenzae type B, hepatitis B, polio, rotavirus, pneumococcus, meningococcus, and Japanese encephalitis.” Measures are also being taken to provide basic health necessities, such as adequate access to clean water, better nutrition, and hygiene education.
Scientists, however, aspire to provide much more than just the basics in health care. Cutting-edge technology is revolutionizing the medical field. It has been said that about every eight years, scientists double their medical knowledge. The following is just a sample of some of the latest technological achievements and goals in the fight against disease.
While there is some controversy over the dangers associated with radiation exposure, medical experts are optimistic about the future benefits of this advancing technology. Michael Vannier, a professor of radiology at the University of Chicago Hospital, says: “In just the past few years, the progress is enough to make your head spin.”
CT scanners are now faster, more accurate, and less costly. The speed of the newest scanning methods is an important advantage. This is especially true when scanning the heart. Because the heart is constantly beating, many X-ray images of it used to come out blurry, making them difficult to evaluate accurately. As New Scientist magazine explains, new scanners take “just a third of a second to rotate around the body, faster than a single heart beat,” thus creating sharper pictures.
With the help of the latest scanners, doctors can not only capture the anatomical details of the inner body but also examine the biochemical activity of specific areas. This application may make it possible to detect the presence of cancer in its early stages.
To put such a measurement in perspective, the page you are reading now is about 100,000 nanometers thick, and a human hair about 80,000. A red blood cell is about 2,500 nanometers in diameter. A bacterium is about 1,000 nanometers long, and a virus about 100 nanometers. Your DNA measures about 2.5 nanometers in diameter.
Proponents of this technology believe that in the near future, scientists will be able to build tiny devices designed to perform medical procedures inside the human body. Often referred to as nanomachines, these little robots will carry microscopic computers programmed with very specific instructions. Amazingly, these fairly complex machines will be built with components no bigger than 100 nanometers. That is 25 times smaller than the diameter of a red blood cell!
Because they are so small, it is hoped that nanodevices will someday be able to travel through tiny capillaries and deliver oxygen to anemic tissues, remove obstructions from blood vessels and plaque from brain cells, and even hunt down and destroy viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents. Nanomachines may also be used to deliver drugs directly to specifically targeted cells.
Scientists predict that cancer detection will improve dramatically with the aid of nanomedicine. Dr. Samuel Wickline, a professor of medicine, physics, and biomedical engineering, said: “The possibilities are enormous for finding very small cancers far earlier than ever before and treating them with powerful drugs at the tumor site alone, while at the same time reducing any harmful side effects.”
Although this may sound like futuristic fantasy, nanomedicine is very real in the minds of some scientists. Leading researchers in this field expect that within the next decade, nanotechnology will be in use in repairing and rearranging the molecular structure of living cells. One proponent claims: “Nanomedicine will eliminate virtually all common diseases of the 20th century, virtually all medical pain and suffering, and allow the extension of human capabilities.” Even now some scientists are reporting good success in the use of nanomedicine on laboratory animals.
When genes are damaged, they can have an impact on our health. In fact, some researchers believe that all diseases arise from genetic malfunction. Some defective genes are inherited from our parents. Others are damaged by exposure to harmful elements in our environment.
Scientists hope that they will soon be able to identify the specific genes that predispose us to disease. This can allow doctors to understand, for instance, why certain individuals are more prone to cancers than others or why a type of cancer is more aggressive in some people than in others. Genomics may also reveal why a drug proves effective for some patients while not for others.
Such specific genetic information may give birth to what is being called personalized medicine. How might you benefit from this technology? The concept of personalized medicine suggests that medical care can be tailored to match your unique genetic profile. For example, if a study of your genes were to reveal that you are predisposed to develop a certain disease, doctors could detect such a disease long before any symptoms appeared. Proponents claim that in instances where the disease is not yet present, the right treatment, diet, and changes in behavior might even prevent the disease altogether.
Your genes may also alert doctors to the likelihood of your having an adverse reaction to medication. This information may give doctors the ability to prescribe the precise kind of medicine and the dosage needed in your particular case. The Boston Globe reports: “By 2020, the impact [of personalized medicine] is likely to be far more sweeping than any of us can envision today. New gene-based designer drugs will be developed for diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, schizophrenia, and many other conditions that take a high toll on our society.”
The above-mentioned technologies are but a sample of what science promises for the future. Medical knowledge continues to grow at an unprecedented rate. But scientists do not expect to eradicate sickness completely anytime soon. There are many hurdles that still seem insurmountable.